Struggling for relief

Finding routine for those with special needs in education

Angela Ide, Opinions Editor

Andrew (17), William (13), and Elyse Widner (20) bonding over the fall weather together.
(Courtesy of Elyse Widner)

One program in public schools across the nation has done tireless work outside of the spotlight and has taken a harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic than most: the Special Needs program.

Those participating in Special Needs programs found themselves in a pandemic that was going to release the floodgates over an already drowning population.

It is impossible to fully understand the complexity and invariable uniqueness of each person’s needs and abilities. So with that in mind, it is understandable why some see the label “disabled” as freeing because of the knowledge it gives that the tasks that someone is struggling to do are not because there is something wrong with them, they just need a little extra help.

Others find the label “disabled” as harmful because it becomes a box that they get put in and the history of the dismissive and harmful treatment of those in need the label has.

No matter how society labels these human beings, they deserve and desperately need the proper support, now more than ever.

For the Widner family, the issue of finding support for those who participate in Special Needs programs is very real.

Elyse Widner, former psychology and education double major at Seattle Pacific University, decided to take a year off to help support to her family members in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; especially since her younger brother, William, is “non-verbal autistic”, as his family members like to describe him.

“You want to embrace the person that William is, and not look at autism as a disease, but just a part of him that needs the extra help,” explains Elyse Widner about the way she and her family understand who William is.

William Widner is a wonderful 13-year-old boy currently attending Inglewood Middle School in Sammamish, Washington. He is also a participant in the special needs program there.

The Widner family have faced the struggles of providing the best learning environment for William in 2020.

Elyse Widner stated that they have all seen much support and progress made in William’s life through the Special Needs program at Inglewood, so they are beyond thankful for the hard work that the school puts into helping William.

“Before COVID, William does keep pretty busy in the school year,” Widner says about the program. “That was five days a week and then he would get some therapy time.”

The most helpful thing for William has been regularity and consistency. And that was all lost in a moment’s notice when Washington suddenly shut down.

“The summer is always hard,” explains Widner, even before the summer of 2020.

Not only are the important services give William the support and best learning environment for William have been temporarily lost, but the much-needed relief that these services provide their family members in William’s life.

“We love William,” shares Widner, “but there are times when you just need a break.”

Even with some of the behavioral differences between William and some of his peers, he is still a normal growing, teenage boy, so keeping the house stocked with food is a challenge.

“He has a really big appetite, so we have to keep the kitchen and the freezer locked up or he’ll go searching for some things to eat.”

Although, because of William’s struggles with impulse control, when he’s hungry, his family members need to supervise so that he stays healthy and safe.

“He’ll also look for non-food items to eat, so we need to be with him all the time,” says Widner.

That is when the strain of supporting family members who need extra help becomes an energy crisis. With constant supervision and care required, family burnout is very real.

Although there are other options for families to get support for their family members at home, the resources for those services are available. The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) can provide caregivers to give registered family members some paid respite hours, but there are very few DDA certified caregivers.

One of the reasons for the lack of caregivers is the limited incentives for caregivers to get DDA trained.

“It’s hard to attract caregivers. It is minimum wage, it is a lot of training, and it’s hard work,” Widner explains as she had been working towards certification herself. She completed her training, but her testing was postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

How is it that, once again, American society has decided to abandon those searching for support because the reward for that support is not monetarily measurable?

Why is it that those who are willing and able to help individuals who need it, they aren’t given a decent wage to live by?

This has to change. As a nation, this desecrates the inherent beauty in every single human and it makes the service of those who need it a nearly impossible act.

As the state begins to slowly and carefully open up again, people have the opportunity to redefine what programs in school need help. The chance to reach out a loving hand to those just looking to live a fulfilled life is just beyond the horizon.

With the reopening of in-person services and public-funded help like in-school programs, families are finally getting some help.

“It’s obviously been better now that we’ve had more relief with therapists and him going back to school; only a couple hours a day, and not on Wednesdays, but we take it.”

And with that, some of the structure that the family couldn’t create for William on their own, the Special Needs program is doing what it can to support William alongside them.

“We’re hopeful that the hardest part of it is over.”